by Jack Houston

How’s Sammy doing?

Chaz. That was what someone had called him—Well done Chaz, you’ve made an honest woman of her at last!! 🥳—in the comments underneath the smiling picture of two people, a woman wearing a white lace dress, and he, Chaz, wearing a kilt, the two of them both holding a knife, cutting a cake. And no, it wasn’t at all appropriate for her sister Lisa to wonder if he was wearing pants underneath. Now she wished she hadn’t seen any of it, hadn’t seen the pictures of him in his West Ham shirt at his stag do, hadn’t seen the photos of holidays and days out and work drinks with the other teachers, the pictures of him with his elderly mum and dad. Now she felt like she knew him. And she didn’t. Not really. She did know what his favourite food was, true, and his favourite book, and what he thought of its film adaptation, and even what he thought of The Hammers’ club-record signing of a new striker, but she also knew she really had to stop looking through his Facebook page.

How’s his reading coming?

She hadn’t started it. Her big sister, Lisa, had been the one laughing, typing his name into the Facebook search box, having his photo appear along with the others who shared his name, pictures of people with similar names disappearing into the scroll-down.  She’d had no choice but to affirm, meekly, that it was indeed him, knowing it was wrong as Lisa clicked through to his un-privacy-feature-secured page. If he’d been a secondary school teacher, maybe he would’ve only allowed people that actually knew him into his electronic confidence, she thought, as she told Mr McCallum, Charles McCallum, Chaz McCallum over the phone that yes, Sammy was fine. She turned from the window. Sammy making his Peppa Pig figurine talk to a toy shark. He did seem fine. Though she still wasn’t sure how to get him to do the home-schooling he clearly wasn’t interested in. She turned back to her first-floor view of the street and the bus stop, the short hop to Holloway Road and the shops they could have gone to if the shops were still open, and she could be faffed fighting Sammy into his warm winter clothes.

And how’s the numeracy? Did you manage to get the worksheets from the school office?

No. No she hadn’t managed to get the worksheets from the school office. After her landlord sold the flat she’d been living in—two-months’ notice and no hope of affording anywhere else in the area—she’d been placed here, Brecknock Primary School now a bus ride away. Which hadn’t been too bad at first, before all this, before everyone was told not to get on public transport anymore and then the schools closed anyway. It would take nearly an hour on foot and Sammy, well, she didn’t know if she could get him all the way there, not without another in-the-street-screaming-match, Sammy too big for his buggy but his legs still too short for the walk and anyway she just couldn’t face it and anyway that wasn’t it, not really. It was next door, the one between her and the stairs, in between her and the house’s front door. Next door who kept playing his music. She should never have knocked, never have asked him to turn it down. It had been worse since, at all hours, keeping her and Sammy up all night some nights. She’d tried to complain but there didn’t seem to be anyone in the council’s emergency-accommodation office anymore. Worse, he’d begun confronting her, hearing her leave her room and coming out into the hall, blocking her path, asking what she thought she was gonna do. Who she thought she was. So even without the lockdown, even if everyone hadn’t been stuck inside, listening all day to the doom-laden radio, she wouldn’t have felt comfortable leaving the room.  

And how’s Sammy feeling? In himself?

Now she couldn’t help it, couldn’t help imagining Chaz and his easy life in his three-bedroomed home somewhere on the greener outskirts of London, the sun shining over the garden that his pretty kids would whoop in from, his beautiful wife pouring him another cup of tea, the radio on in the background but nothing on it able to upset him because he was fine, just fine. She would never have that, would never get out of here, this small room with the damp patches spreading above her and Sammy’s shared double-bed, the cramped, communal kitchen and bathroom, the windows that never quite shut out the cold of last winter and wouldn’t let in enough light come summer and Sammy’s dad, if he was around, only there to ask for money that she didn’t have. She stared out at the blank rows of windows in the houses opposite, the cars parked along the dark tarmac of the road. A 393 bus chugged past, empty, and a lone magpie swooped down through the bus’s wake, swept upwards to land on the guttering of one of the houses opposite, letting out a ratchetty cry that clattered into the empty street. It bobbed its tail, once, twice, then leapt, catching the air to fly away.

I’ll call you again next week, OK?

oOo

Jack Houston is a writer and public-library worker from London. His poetry has been widely published and his short fiction is forthcoming on Storgy and has appeared in online iterations of Litro and Open Pen, and also the Brick Lane Bookshop 2020 Prize Shortlist and the 2020 BBC National Short Story Award print anthologies. A debut poetry pamphlet, The Fabulanarchist Luxury Uprising, is due from The Emma Press in 2022